This story is part of “Clearance,” a design issue that peels back the layers of aspirational architecture in L.A., and envisions a more beautiful future that lives a little less on the nose. Read the whole issue here.
For the last year and a half, I have lived in a booth. It’s a space where I’ve disregarded the transition of dawn to dusk in favor of becoming a die-hard lingerer. The booth, with its dented but sturdy table surface and muted sage wall, is where I rest my elbows. Where my posture takes shape in fetal and frog-like form, and no one is judging me for it. It hasn’t always been this way. Before we knocked down a closet, my husband and I sat on stools in our shared kitchen-studio-workspace, preoccupied with home projects that seemed more like chores: decluttering drawers, framing photographs, finding the right location to mount a TV. When we started piecing together a new place to eat, drink and gather with friends and family, every detail felt pivotal. What type of wood would pair well with the counters? How could we make extra storage space for our oversized serving platters? Which color and material of upholstery would stand up to the inevitable cat hair and scratches? As much as those decisions were tied to design fantasies, the aftermath has been about everyday realities — here is where I write, snack, study, shop, scroll and scan the same to-do lists. Here is where my gaze shifts from the bookshelf to the dog’s bed; the craft cabinet to the window; my husband’s desk to the fruit bowl. Here is where — precisely and perpetually — I choose to exist.
In the outside world, here is also where many of us gravitate toward when entering a restaurant. To search for an empty booth — or rather, a semblance of privacy in any public space — is like a reflex for homebodies that can’t quite remove themselves from what everyone else is up to. A booth promises a space to people-watch, exchange secrets and decompress in solitude or with loved ones over whatever comfort food matches the mood. An appetite for mashed potatoes, patty melts, potstickers and spaghetti pomodoro only grows with a well-padded perspective. A booth is where restaurant regulars are born, where out-of-towners can find a taste of home, where romantics dream up first dates launching lifelong partnerships — however noisy or filled with distractions the atmosphere becomes, a booth remains a sanctuary.
Amid the sea of celebrity in Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of beloved restaurant booths. They are, essentially, the furniture equivalent of entering a life behind the scenes. Inside iconic Italian eatery Dan Tana’s, 103-year-old Musso & Frank Grill and Koreatown’s regularly-closed-for-filming the Prince, shiny booths are weathered with histories of Hollywood headlines and lore — this is where baby Drew Barrymore’s diapers were changed; this is where Greta Garbo fueled up on “flannel cake” for breakfast; this is where a scarlet-lipped Faye Dunaway lit her cigarette so casually over candle flame in “Chinatown,” respectively. This is also where, allegedly, ghosts might make appearances: As George Geary writes in “L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants,” guests at Musso & Frank have claimed to “feel a strange presence” and “variations in the temperature” while sitting in booth 1 — Charlie Chaplin’s once-preferred spot.
New and old, eerie or not, high-backed banquettes remain the backdrop of the modern golden era. Or, as the booth-packed Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge — where Chanel hosted 2023’s pre-Oscars party — puts it, they provide a foundation for “familiar faces,” “power dining” and “a bright future.” Book a table at Craig’s on Melrose on any given night and you might bump into the likes of Cher, Frank Ocean and Paris Hilton. Catch “Daisy Jones and the Six” actor Suki Waterhouse eating pancakes in a caramel-colored booth at Clark Street Diner in a fashion feature for Vogue. Many of Rihanna’s most jaw-dropping looks, most recently featuring a black and white ensemble (coordinating with her growing family, of course), continue to be cemented in our brains courtesy of paparazzi waiting outside of her go-to spot in Santa Monica, Giorgio Baldi. The internet offers endless speculations about her specific pasta order, but nothing about whether or not she claims the “best table”: a leather booth with a view. I like to imagine that she does.
With regard to design, booths have the power to ascribe to a restaurant a second personality, or at least somewhat of an introverted alter ego. Even the worst of overpriced rooftops and Nouveau Riche aesthetics can feel comforting when you’re tucked in with close company talking about all the things you collectively hate. At Damon’s Steak House in Glendale, tiki drinks and bamboo booths might inspire you to set your auto-reply to OOO long after the carrot cake disappears. The large and warmly lit booths at Genghis Cohen offer ex-New Yorkers live music, familiar spicy specialties and a reminder that on the West Coast, it’s beyond acceptable to dress with comfort top of mind. In diner settings — at Canter’s Deli, Nate n’ Al’s, and Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant, where eating hot pastrami has been likened to entering the gates of heaven — booths hold up as a neighborhood hub for sneakerheads, Rodeo Drive dwellers and MacArthur Park goers to slump into all the same. It’s also true that booths are not always the most accessible form of seating — depending on their size and set-up, they can exclude groups of people — though for families with little ones, booths can provide a little more room for roaming, lollygagging and kids getting their pick at whatever plate they please.
The emotions associated with making any new city feel like home can range from bright-eyed to entirely overwhelmed in the time it takes a short traffic light to turn from green to red. Since moving from Montreal to Los Angeles in 2021, I’ve grown accustomed to this roller coaster, though I’m still incapable of securing a grasp on what it means to move through so many scenes, spaces and stories all at once. Where I’ve felt the most grounded is in L.A.’s unmatched food environments — meeting friends downtown at Smorgasborg; checking in with vendors at the Hollywood Farmers Market every Sunday; becoming a student at the Institute of Culinary Education in Pasadena; frequenting soon-to-be developed restaurants as much possible before they shut down (Off Vine will forever hold my heart). Above all, situating myself in booths — be it at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz with my latest purchase from Skylight Books, or alongside the rock star shrines at Rainbow Bar and Grill before getting a teddy bear tattoo at Shamrock Social Club — has been my security blanket.
I walk past Denny’s on Sunset, and I remember sitting in a corner booth waiting to interview Hollywood’s original influencer and legendary billboard star Angelyne, who told me about a childhood memory from her babysitter’s house where she looked out a window facing Hollywood and felt the stars “shining and beckoning” her. During happy hour at Fred 62, I stop by for a Sunday Bloody Sunday, and I think about the time I met pro skater and Olympian Lizzie Armanto there, and how we sat outdoors instead of in one of the perfectly worn-in booths because the sun was shining, and because she brought her dog, Alma. When fellow Canadians come to town, we meet at Jones, where we sit in brown booths and reminisce about high school memories and catch up on news from old acquaintances in our shared hometown. When I miss my dear friend Durga, who writes about what she calls “nook people” in her book “Too Much and Not the Mood,” I picture a future meal together in a booth at Bub & Grandma’s, where I think she might enjoy the toast and pastel yellow interiors. Just the other day, when I heard about the “rebirth” of Frank Sinatra’s red sauce at La Dolce Vita in Beverly Hills, I was immediately desperate to crawl into his signature burgundy booth with my grandmother, who knew every word to all of his songs.
Tonight, at home in my L-shaped oasis, the 50-plus tabs on my laptop are guaranteed to spark ridiculous impulses, and I will attempt to push back by lying down on the moss green cushions and staring up at the ceiling thinking about nothing. It’s likely where I’ll look over at the sale-priced retail therapy cake stand and glass dome I purchased last week and start making a dessert I’ll soon regret. It’s where I’ll wait for a call from my sister, three hours ahead in Toronto, to hear about her night out at Sunny’s Chinese. If I know her the way that siblings always seem to get each other, she’ll tell me stories from a booth.
Erika Houle is a writer, editor and culinary student based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at SSENSE, 2001, Editorial Magazine and more.